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Living On One—100 Pennies Per Person Per Day

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How can I personally understand poverty and wealth?

There is a fetching honesty to Living On One, the film from four documentarians out of the Claremont Colleges. These economics and film majors—all graduates within the year—set out to ask what it might look like to live on a dollar a day. “Living on a dollar a day” is one of those generalized statistics used to illustrate how a staggering number of people on our planet (over 1.2 billion?) live with so little.

The four friends set up shop (that is, a squalid camp) for a summer in a rural village in Guatemala and proceeded to shed pounds and acquire bug bites and diseases as they submitted to the economic rigor of making a life on the equivalent of 100 pennies per person per day.

Watching these friends sort out what to eat and how to eat it and how to cook it (firewood was a major draw on their 100 pennies) was a lesson in itself—especially when they realized that 1200 calories per person per day would not sustain them. They stepped over some invisible line the moment they bought their first bit of lard to cook in their daily ration of beans and rice—simply to get enough calories to keep lethargy partly at bay. They grew radishes, lusted after fresh fruit and longed for a chicken to nurture and then eat. The stories of the people who came to their aid and with whom they formed friendships are without question the most touching part of the film. All in all it’s an entertaining and affecting first-person account of trying to sort out the demands of poverty and wealth.

The honesty came in letting go of any pretense of actually being poor. They knew—and we the audience knew—they were choosing a particular limit. For a limited time. Resources were a phone call away, of course. But the thought experiment of trying to come to grips with a hand-to-mouth existence was compelling and begat practical lessons. The result was a kind of pragmatic knowledge that a textbook can never supply. I applaud their courage.

The Living On One bus stopped in Minneapolis a couple days ago. They played the film and took questions at the Bell Museum on the U of M campus, before a robust group of students and others. As they filmmakers took the stage I could see they were once again healthy people but also deeply affected by their experiment.

Their parting shot to the audience was to “Do something. Anything.” This final word was also an intrinsically honest call to action. The four friends had partnered with different micro-finance and poverty-fighting organizations, so they could and did recommend places to give cash toward the problem. But the big take-away was the struggle to personally understand this immense inequality.

That is a challenge that will stick with me.


Written by kirkistan

November 20, 2012 at 9:16 am

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